Hill Republicans Rediscovering Their Swagger

Posted September 10, 2009 at 1:59pm

On Inauguration Day, Congressional Republicans were facing a bleak and lonely future — their ranks had diminished by two consecutive electoral defeats and they were facing a newly emboldened Democratic majority poised to enact a laundry list of legislative priorities.

But over the past eight months, the GOP has found that being in the minority can, in fact, be politically advantageous, and the party may have found the footing it needs for a political comeback.

Indeed, for the first time since the 2006 elections, Republicans appear to have regained some of their political swagger and appear increasingly confident that the momentum gained from this summer’s health care reform fight will continue into the fall.

Republicans are far from chest pounding — they recognize it could be a while before they regain control of the White House and Congress — but they have renewed hope thanks in large part to strict message discipline and a generous helping of Democratic missteps.

“The dynamics and specifics of everything have changed— since President Barack Obama took office in January, a senior Senate GOP leadership aide said, explaining that Republican leaders in both chambers have used their successful push on energy reform in 2008 as a template for the party’s success. Last summer, Republicans used floor speeches, near daily press conferences and other events — most notably the House GOP’s “protest— on the floor designed to delay the August recess — to make the case that Democrats’ energy and environmental policies were driving up gas prices. Although Republicans made some modest proposals of their own, their success was rooted in the fact that their message was simple and concise.

But that success was ultimately short-circuited by the economic downturn last fall — a setback that many in the GOP believe turned the tide against them in the 2008 elections. “The economy collapsed. And politically speaking, there [was] no way to recover from that,— the Senate leadership aide said.

Despite the electoral losses, Republicans came away believing that if they maintained a tightly controlled message, they could cause significant damage to the majority party and potentially reverse their fortunes.

Starting in the winter, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), House Minority Leader John Boehner (Ohio) and other top Republicans mapped out a strategy. They slowly assembled a message on national security, the deficit and government spending. By not putting all their political eggs in one basket as they did in the summer of 2008, Republicans believed they could position themselves to take on the Obama administration over the next 14 months.

For instance, Republicans have tried to capitalize on and encourage greater public wariness over health care reform and looked to broaden the fight to stop Democratic plans for an overhaul of climate change and the federal budget.

House Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence (Ind.) said Republicans must be careful not to become wrapped up in a single issue so they will be ready to pivot if the legislative focus suddenly shifts.

“The biggest challenge is understanding that it is a multifront battle,— Pence said after an energy forum earlier this month. “We are here talking about cap-and-trade because cap-and-trade is alive and well.

“We know [that] while there are different changes and directions in substance on health care proposals, we have to stay in the fight,— Pence said.

Republicans said that in the runup to next year’s election, they will continue to use a multifront approach to battle Democrats. In addition to fighting Democrats over health care and climate change, they will ramp up their offensive over the deficit, hoping to seize on public concern over its growth in a poor economy.

Although Republicans acknowledge that a significant upturn in the country’s economic fortunes — or an unforeseen incident like the 9/11 terrorist attacks that cemented George W. Bush’s presidency — could dramatically remake the political landscape, they said Members are becoming increasingly confident about the party’s direction.

“Message discipline is something we’ve had success with … [which] gives Republicans confidence,— a Senate Republican said. And that confidence has begun to translate into renewed interest in running for the House and Senate by top tier candidates — something the GOP has struggled with over the past two cycles.